“Here lies the thriving town of Muchiri [Muziris], where the beautiful large ships of the Yavana come, bringing gold, splashing the white foam on the waters of the Periyar and then return, laden with pepper.”
– Poem on Muziris, the lost city
Seafarers loved sailing to the ancient port city of Muziris near the tip of the Indian subcontinent, which had business ties with the Greeks, the Romans, the Assyrians, the Arabs and the Jews till a devastating flood in 1341 AD washed Muziris off the face of the earth. But the flood waters also opened up a new harbour to its south, in Kochi.
The Periyar River changed course and with it, the history of the Malabar Coast. The natural harbour which emerged at Kochi also brought in the spin-offs of trade, colonialism, culture and cosmopolitanism to its people. Ships from Europe came laden with gold, glass, wine and linen to the waterfront in Fort Kochi and returned with Black Gold (pepper).
Today, the cobbled streets leading from the Fort Kochi waterfront, past the Chinese fishing nets to the abandoned warehouses of the Matancherry spice market, with their sloping, tiled roofs and sun-baked courtyards, are once again abuzz with chatter about the city’s transformation.
But the chatter in Kochi today has less to do with the vagaries of the sea and more with exploiting natural resources, artistic imagination and entrepreneurship, to put the spotlight back on a city that Mahatma Gandhi described in 1925 as the “epitome of adventure”. Think solar energy, India’s first biennale and the first public-private tech incubator in the country.
Follow the sun
The feeling strikes you the moment you peer out of your aircraft and look at thousands of solar panels lined up next to the tarmac. As you wait for a taxi, huge billboards proclaim that you’ve touched down at the world’s first entirely solar-powered airport. Really?
Wasn’t Kochi India’s first private airport, a distinction it achieved in 1999? Sure, but the busy airport, which handled 64.5 lakh passengers in 2014-15, guzzles up more than 48,000 units of power every day, on an average. So, it makes sense, says VJ Kurian, managing director of Cochin International Airport Ltd, to look at green energy. “We were running up a power bill of Rs1.5 crore every month. So, we looked at solar power to meet our energy needs.”
Banking on solar energy, the airport now generates 52,000 units of power every day on an average. “On good days, we touch 67,000 and on days when it is not so sunny, it goes down to 33,000 units. But we easily meet our everyday requirement of 48,000 units,” says Kurian.
Do all their operations, including the air traffic control, run on solar power? “Yes, the airport is run entirely on solar energy. The chunk of production happens from 10am to 4pm. We use it during the day and the balance is fed into the grid. In the night we buy it back,” says the civil servant also credited with the idea of building India’s first private airport in a state that voted in the world’s first democratically elected communist government in 1957.
Lord of the ring
The 15,000 sq feet Start-Up Village, India’s first public-private incubator, is a playground for many a start-up adventure. Launched in April 2012, its success in sparking off an entrepreneurial culture in the erstwhile Marxist bastion even has India’s biggest information technology czars impressed.
What gladdens former Infosys CEO Kris Gopalakrishnan’s heart the most is the manner in which Kochi-bred start-ups are putting India on the global hardware map. “Going beyond India’s image as a software and services hub, many of these start-ups are focused on creating products that go into a car, or a bike, or a wearable device, or a healthcare product. These are the stories the world needs to hear,” he says.
Meet Rohildev Nattukallingal, the 24-year-old founder of Fin Robotics. Neyya, the wearable technology ring he has created, began selling at American retail spaces such as Brookstone and Bloomingdale’s, as well as Amazon, on November 17. It will soon debut in New York at fashion designer Donna Karan’s upscale Urban Zen chain of stores.
Neyya, according to a report in the Indian Science Journal, can transmit commonly used gestures like taps and swipes as commands to a connected Bluetooth device such as a smartphone, a music player or a gaming console.
It can also be used inside a car, hooked up to a television set or a home-automation device. For instance, a person driving a car can use Neyya as a key, take phone calls, or control the music player without having to take their hands off the steering wheel.
Much before Nattukallingal fine-tuned his prototype and raised $200,000 (about Rs 1.23 crore) through crowdfunding platform Indiegogo (more than 3,000 buyers, mostly in the United States, signed up to pre-book the ring), the Start-Up Village helped him find his feet. “On my first visit to Kochi in 2012, during an open coffee event, I met Start-Up Village CEO Sanjay Vijaykumar. When I explained the concept of the gesture control app to him, Sanjay invited me to take it a level higher by working at the Village. Over the next three years, I got a work space, along with electricity and WiFi, free of cost. I stayed in a hostel nearby but most times I was working through the night at the Start-Up Village,” says the boy from Coimbatore.
The state’s student entrepreneurship policy has helped many a student from small towns convert his or her final-year project into a technology start-up at Kochi, says PH Kurian, principal secretary, IT, government of Kerala.
Although the go-getters of the city are coming into their own, Kochi’s spirit of adventure is rooted firmly in its history of secularism and plurality, Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, co-founders of the Kochi-Muzris Art Biennale, India’s first ever bi-annual art exposition, tell us.
In 2012, when MA Baby, the Marxist minister of culture, met Mumbai-based Krishnamachari with a proposal of putting together an event to promote art in the state, he called over some artist friends, including Komu, for a freewheeling discussion over dinner. “All of us agreed that the biennale had to be a platform for alternative, experimental art,” recalls Krishnamachari. “At the same time, it had to take forward the vision of the 1958 document prepared by the Nehru government to create academies, revive traditional art forms and introduce international art practices. Look at the kind of culturally diverse thinking which was prevalent in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s before it declined in the decades that followed,” says Krishnamachari, one of the leading artists and curators in the country.
A similar idea of plurality resonates in the biennale’s vision document, says Komu. “We protest against any kind of political intolerance. That is why we proposed that the first-ever biennale in the country should centre on cosmopolitanism. That was the central idea for the first edition in 2012 where we got 89 artists from more than 23 countries,” says Komu.
It helped that Kochi already had that organic, culturally charged vibe. Soon, the world realised why its people wear their cosmopolitanism as a badge. More than four lakh visitors turned up for the 2012 biennale.
The next edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, spread over 108 days, was even bigger, with 100 exhibits comprising works by 94 artists from 30 countries.
In 2014, more than five lakh people thronged biennale venues such as Aspinwall House, Pepper House and the Cochin Club in Fort Kochi; the abandoned spice warehouses of Mattanchari, as well as Ernakulam on the mainland. So, you could spot a gallerist from Italy rubbing shoulders with the autorickshaw driver from Mattanchari and journalists from Mumbai and Delhi having appams at quaint wharf-side cafes with businessmen from Bengal. But all of them discovered alternative discourses in art history, gawked at Yoko Ono’s artwork and mobbed the superstars of the art world such as sculptor Anish Kapoor and Francesco Clemente, one-time collaborator of Andy Warhol, whose influences range from Allen Ginsberg to Jiddu Krishnamurti.
Some of the most interesting works in the biennale, says Komu, have been those that were rooted in the city’s history and plurality. Incomplete Circles-Invisible Voices, artist-academic Sanchayan Ghosh’s sound installation, for instance, focused on the aural legacy of 24 communities that have made Kochi their home.
Other biennale artists didn’t shy away from reprising a bloody chapter in Kochi’s history. Echo Armada, Portuguese muralist Ricardo Gouveia’s installation, housed in a derelict dockyard at Kalvathy, referred to the myth of “Kappiri,” the African slaves killed by the Portuguese.
In its own way, the biennale can become a site for conflict resolution, says Komu. “Art becomes a reason for a better understanding of history.”
As you cross the bridge from the idyllic Fort Kochi into the Ernakulam mainland, colonial architecture – a legacy of centuries of Portuguese, Dutch and the English rule – with its villas, fishing nets and synagogues, makes way for boxy restaurants, multi-storey car showrooms, flyovers and malls.
Spread over 18 acres, the LuLu Mall, which boasts the largest hypermarket in India and is the second largest mall in size (after Mumbai’s Phoenix Market City) is a Cochin landmark. “We see average footfalls of 56,000 on weekdays which go up to one lakh on weekends,” says Shibu Philips, business head of LuLu Shopping Mall.
The more-and-more story continues across the bright lights of the big city. But Kochi isn’t immune to chaotic planning. “Technically, Kochi city has already spread northwards to Aluva and Nedumbassery and southwards to Cherthala,” says Kochi-based architect and restoration expert Monolita Chatterji.
There are long stretches of apartments bought by cash-rich NRIs that stay empty as their owners work in West Asia. “This creates dead downtowns in the city while the living population has to live outside and travel long distances to work,” says Chatterji.
A city of 6 lakh people doesn’t really need a 6,000 crore Metro rail system, argue experts. But its planners seem to be awake to Kochi’s unique public transport needs. “Kochi will soon have the first unified metropolitan transport authority in India. The cabinet has cleared it and the governor has signed the document,” says former Kochi mayor KJ Sohan. “This means one single authority will control the road, Metro and water transport systems. Kochi’s next big revolution will happen on land, water and rail,” says Sohan.
Once 20-year-old start-up entrepreneur Arya Murali completes her BTech, she wants to shift from Thrissur and live on her own in Kochi. “If you ask me, I find Kochi to be the most resourceful place in Kerala. You have access to a lot of new things and cultures. The people are open-minded, something which is missing in other districts. Plus, it is a cool place to hang out with friends,” she declares.
Hasn’t some smart marketing genius already coined “God’s own city,” to describe Kochi?
Kochi gets App happy
The new poster boy of the Indian start-up space, Rohildev Nattukallingal of Fin Robotics has designed a wearable ring (below) which uses gestures to communicate with wireless devices such as your phone. His success story is inspiring other young entrepreneurs in Kochi.
* Arya Murali, 20, CEO of the start-up firm Walat, is developing a mobile app to stop ATM theft. “When you swipe your card, the personal data stored in the magnetic strip can be copied. To copy the pin, thieves install pinhole cameras on the keyboard. That is why banks recommend you cover the keyboard with your hand when you enter the pin. With your personal data and pin, any thief can use card-making machines and duplicate the card,” says Murali. But once users download the Walat app, they won’t need to key in the pin on the keyboard. They can do it on their phone instead and use a QR code scanner which will connect them to the bank.
The next step for the start-up won’t be easy: Convincing banks to install QR codes at the ATM machines.
* Rabotech Technology CEO Salin Sunny, 25, is working on Nearals, an app that can help retailers deliver targeted mobile advertising to regular clients. “Say you are at a coffee shop located within 100 metres of your favourite apparel store. The app will push a greeting to you informing you about, say, jackets or boots selling at a 70 per cent discount,” says Sunny.
Photos by Dinesh Krishnan
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From HT Brunch, December 6
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